The location of Chicago’s new Back of the Yards College Preparatory High School proved to be a tight squeeze. Bound by manufacturing facilities and railroad tracks, the 200,000-square-foot  building—along with its athletic fields and parking area—had to fit a site of less than nine acres.

To delineate the different functions of the 1,200-student high school, the architects designed a continuous brick “ribbon wall” to serve as the building’s primary design element. This wall snakes back and forth to define three programmatic building volumes representing mind (academic), body (athletic), and spirit (arts). A texture of vertical slot windows of varying widths is overlaid onto the wall to provide a random and continuous pattern. Secondary elements feature masonry walls that connect perpendicularly to the ribbon walls and to the protruding aluminum and glass boxes, which set off the specialty areas in each programmatic volume.

Next, the architects looked to the nature of the brick itself for inspiration. With the verticality of the slot windows in mind, the architects explored the design of the unit with the overall goal of increasing typical dimensions and providing a variation in unit size to promote the randomness. The design team worked closely with brick manufacturers to ensure special shapes and sizes could be produced and fit within the budget.

The large brick face proved to be important as it allowed the architects to extend a random texture over the brick through scoring. From an onlooker’s perspective, the pattern is maximized and holds up visually over a long distance due to the oversized scale of the brick units.

In addition, the design team specified special corner units to ensure continuity of pattern at the corners formed at door and window returns. They curved the corners at each turn of the brick ribbon wall by  using brick units that are curved to the 4-foot radius of the wall. This allows the two perpendicular walls to unify into a single serpentine expression without faceting the wall.

In the end, the architects exploited many of brick’s design possibilities to create a truly unique and admired new high school.

For more of Back of the Yards High School, see its feature article in Brick In Architecture.  It will also appear in the December issue of Architect magazine.